By Reese Erlich
KATMANDU, Nepal—On Sept. 5, Nepal’s parliament will attempt to elect a prime minister, the sixth try in almost three months. Nobody is ringing gongs in anticipation of success.
The impasse reflects the deep antagonism between the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the country’s traditional parties.
Four years ago the Maoist guerrillas stopped fighting and agreed to run in parliamentary elections. Two years later, much to the surprise of the traditional parties, the Maoists won a plurality in popular elections for a Constituent Assembly. Newspaper columnist and political analyst Prashant Jha told me, “The Maoists have gone through tremendous changes in the last few years” and have to be treated as a serious political force.
The U.S. and neighboring India strongly oppose the Maoists coming to power, and fair elections haven’t resolved the underlying issue of who is in charge. Pro-U.S. ruling elites around the world encourage leftist and nationalist insurgent groups to lay down their arms and participate in the political process, claiming democracy can resolve their problems. But the Nepal situation belies that cheery rhetoric.
Nepal’s effort to build genuine democracy, or its failure to do so, holds lessons that could impact insurgencies from Colombia to Palestine.
During my last visit to Nepal, I stood directly behind protesters throwing rocks and bottles at Nepalese police. The police threw rocks back at the crowd and fired volleys of tear gas. It was spring 2006, and the Nepalese dictatorship was on its last legs.
Since the 1950s, Nepal had been a constitutional monarchy with the king holding significant, sometimes dictatorial, power. The military always exercised considerable control behind the throne. In June 2001, the crown prince grabbed a rifle and mowed down the king, queen and other members of the royal family in an incident that still hasn’t been fully explained.
The king’s brother, Gyanendra, took power. In 2005, he dissolved the parliament and seized dictatorial powers for himself. The army waged an increasingly brutal war against the Maoist insurgency, which had begun in 1996. An estimated 13,000 people died in the civil war, most killed by the army.
The Maoists also stand accused of human rights violations, including forcible conscription, recruiting child soldiers, seizing property of local landlords and business people, and killing suspected turncoats.
The UPCN (Maoists) are part of an international movement that includes the Shining Path in Peru and the Revolutionary Communist Party in the U.S., led by Bob Avakian. In most countries, the parties’ ultraleftism renders them irrelevant or unable to respond effectively to harsh government repression.
Nepal’s Maoists adopted many of the same ideological positions. For example, Nepalese Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, in a 2009 interview with a British Maoist newspaper, praised the policies of Josef Stalin and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China as examples of “proletarian democracy.”
Nevertheless, the Nepalese Maoists developed popular support among peasants, urban workers and some intellectuals. Particularly after the dictatorship imposed in 2005, the Maoists were seen as guerrillas fighting a repressive regime. While other parties supported the traditional concept of a Hindu constitutional monarchy, the Maoists called for establishing a secular, federal republic.
The two main traditional parties, the Nepalese Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), were forced to play catch-up with the Maoists. Politics have moved so far to the left that the social democratic Nepalese Congress is considered conservative and the CPN (Unified Marxists-Leninist) centrist.
General strikes in 2006 led to the collapse of the monarchy, a peace agreement signed by all the major parties, and agreement to write a democratic constitution.
In the view of the Maoists, they had won an important victory. “We fought the army to a standstill militarily but actually defeated them politically,” one top Maoist ex-guerrilla told me. “Otherwise how would we be sitting here talking today?”
Each of the other parties thought its political tendency had won, pointing to general strikes called by its union supporters.
The Maoists and major political parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Accord that required both the army and guerrillas to stay in barracks with their arms locked up. Today almost 20,000 guerrillas remain in camps scattered around the country. The army has 84,000 troops carrying out normal duties. Critics say the army is far too big for a country of 30 million people with no likelihood of being invaded.
Commander Pasang. © 2010 Reese Erlich
After numerous delays, in 2008, Nepalese voted for a Constituent Assembly to write the new constitution. The Maoists ended up with 239 seats, the Nepalese Congress 110 and CPN (UML) 103. Critics claimed the Maoists coerced voters and engaged in other fraud during the elections. But international observers, including the Carter Center, judged the elections fair.
Maoist successes alarmed the traditional parties, the army and Nepal’s two powerful neighbors, India and China. India does not want a Maoist government next door while it fights a domestic Maoist insurgency. China is wary of a party that it considers ultraleft.
The Maoists themselves have also gone through major ideological upheaval over the past four years. Officially, they continue to uphold the need for socialist revolution. But they no longer call for a Maoist-style guerrilla war.
“We need to complete the democratic revolution in a peaceful way,” Commander Pasang, head of the Maoist ex-guerrilla army, told me. He wouldn’t specify how long it might take to complete that democratic revolution.
Another Maoist guerrilla leader elaborated. “There is zero chance of returning to guerrilla war,” he told me. “But there may be general strikes and other unarmed popular uprisings.”
That constitutes such a deviation from Maoist dogma that Avakian and some others in the international Maoist movement denounce the Nepalese as reformists. “Avakian hates us,” chuckled Pasang, who didn’t seem too worried.
The traditional parties and Maoists sharply disagree on several key issues, which have paralyzed the government for months. The peace accords called for integrating the security forces but didn’t specify how.
The Maoists demand full integration of the two armies from the officer corps to enlisted personnel. That would radically reshape the army, of course.
The army argues it will accept only individual recruits. “There is no point imposing that kind of unnecessary restriction on this army,” Brig. Gen. Ramindra Chhetri told me.
Analyst Jha said party leaders have discussed possible compromises. In one scenario, most of the guerrillas would go home while 5,000 to 8,000 join the army, police and other security forces. “I think what they (Maoists) need is a respectable, honorable deal on integration,” he said.
Another major disagreement is on writing the new constitution. The Maoists said they want genuine democracy.
The Maoists no longer believe in a one-party state as existed in the Soviet Union or China, according to Pasang. Instead, Nepal would have direct, popular elections for president and a bicameral legislature. Other “anti-imperialist” parties could run in those elections.
Brig. Gen. Chhetri. © 2010 Reese Erlich
“If another party won fair elections for president or won a majority in the legislatures, the other party would rule and the UCPN (Maoist) would run in future elections,” according to the guerrilla leader I interviewed.
The Maoists continue to advocate socialism but are quite vague when it comes to describing what kind of socialism. Pasang casually mentioned the economic reforms in China, but refused to offer any examples of successful socialism operating in the world today.
Accepting the idea of genuine competing parties is a radical shift from Maoist dogma. But what the Maoists see as new thinking, the opposition sees as communist dictatorship. After all, they argue, who gets to determine who is an “anti-imperialist” party?
Magazine editor and political analyst Kanak Dixit cited as evidence the Maoist draft constitution submitted to the Constituent Assembly.
“It’s a draft constitution for a People’s Republic of Nepal,” he told me. “The judiciary is kept under control of the legislature. Press freedom is curtailed if you go against nationalism.”
Other analysts said the Maoists have put forward demands but will compromise later on. Jha said the Maoists have already made tremendous changes and “are slowly becoming entrenched in the established political culture of the country.”
Nepal holds important lessons for resolving guerrilla insurgencies whether in Palestine, India or Colombia. Those in power always denounce insurgents as terrorists. But those rulers are really worried about losing economic and political control. The real question is: What kind of society would the insurgents build and can they do it with majority support?
In the case of Nepal, the Maoists have not yet put forward realistic plans for radical economic and political change that will sustain popular support. They have broken with some of their past dogma but are held back by the rest.
Will Nepal break the stranglehold of military and corrupt party rule? Can the Maoists win popular support through fair elections and establishment of democratic institutions?
Stay tuned. The next year may provide the answers.
Foreign correspondent Reese Erlich recently reported from Nepal. His new book, “Conversations With Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire,” comes out Sept. 14. See reeseerlich.com.
AP / Altaf Qadri
Supporters of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) dance to a patriotic song as they block a road in Katmandu.